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Five Things to Watch in Chiefs vs. Texans: Who Can Protect Their QB?

Here are five storylines to follow during the game on Saturday

The Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) travel to take on the Houston Texans (9-7) Saturday afternoon at NRG Stadium in Houston in the first round of the 2015 NFL playoffs.

Here are five things to watch during the game:

1. Which team protects their quarterback better?

The Chiefs and Texans are both built upon the strength of their defenses, and any team that relies on that side of the ball has an identity predicated on the ability to get pressure on the opposing quarterback.

Of the top 10 teams in the NFL in sacks this season, nine of them made the playoffs.

Even with all of the high-flying, gaudy passing numbers circulating the NFL right now, success on the field is still established by a team's ability to physically get after the guy holding the ball.

Former knockout star and boxing legend Mike Tyson said it best: "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

That's basically how football works and the two teams squaring off Saturday afternoon at NRG Stadium in Houston are a clear reflection of this principle.

The Chiefs rank No. 4 with 47 sacks this season and the Texans come in right behind them at No. 5 with 45.

They get after the quarterback.

The Texans are led by J.J. Watt, who led the NFL with 17.5 sacks, and Whitney Mercilus, the fourth-year linebacker who had a breakout season with 12 sacks, 3.5 of which came in their last game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

On Wednesday, the offensive coordinator of the Chiefs, Doug Pederson, said the biggest key for his team on Saturday is keeping quarterback Alex Smith upright.


"Protection, protection, protection," Pederson said of the key to Saturday's game. "We're going to use five, we're going to use six (to protect). The Texans front is very active. They play a bunch of line games, they incorporate their linebackers and they're moving [J.J. Watt] around—putting him as a 'backer. We've got be aware of everything.

"Protection is the biggest key in this football game."

Protection isn't just about the offensive line, and the Chiefs will rely on running backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware to help stay in and pick up guys at times in this game.

While so much has been made of their ability to pick up yards carrying the ball with Jamaal Charles out for the season, the ability for them to help in protection is equally as paramount.

"One thing that (running backs coach) Eric Bieniemy has done with them is, he's pounded protection," Pederson explained. "The running part is easy, you can teach them the run game. It's protection, protection, protection—because this is a throwing league. We need guys who can protect.


"That's where they've really stepped their game up. When a guy like [J.J. Watt] is coming, they've got to step up and take him on. That's where they've gotten better, at understanding that. They know it's more physical than being tackled."

For the Chiefs, the return of Justin Houston after a five-game absence will be a welcomed sight to their defense, although the group has done a great job filling in for him over these past five games—allowing just 13.4 points per game to teams who averaged more than 20 per points per game combined throughout the season.

Houston, who had a key strip-sack in the first meeting against the Texans back in Week 1, said it might take him just a bit to get back into the swing of things during the game.

"I've definitely got some rust to knock off," he said. "I know it probably won't hit me until the first quarter, but after the first quarter I'll be alright."

2. Who wins the turnover battle?

The Texans are undefeated this season when they've won the turnover battle, and they're winless when they haven't.

One of those games they didn't win that battle was back in Week 1 against the Chiefs, when their 2 turnovers proved to be the difference in the 7-point win for the Chiefs as both turnovers resulted in quick touchdowns for the Chiefs.

On the first play of the game for the Texans offense, rookie cornerback Marcus Peters gave us a glimpse of what we'd see throughout the rest of the season—picking off Brian Hoyer deep in Texans territory. Two plays later, Travis Kelce caught a 10-yard touchdown, which gave the Chiefs an early 7-0 lead.


Late in the first half, Justin Houston beat his guy around the edge on third-and-long and forced the strip-sack of Hoyer—also deep in Texans territory—and the ball was recovered by Allen Bailey.

On the very next play of the game, Jeremy Maclin caught a 7-yard touchdown from Alex Smith, which gave the Chiefs a 27-6 lead.

Considering the Chiefs went scoreless in the second half of that game, those 2 turnovers and subsequent points were the difference.

According to Houston, the team they'll face on Saturday doesn't make these same mistakes.

"They're more patient now, they're careful with the ball – no turnovers," he explained, "so we've got to create turnovers to give us a chance to win."

Over their past two games, both wins, the Texans have won the turnover battle 8 to 2.

The Chiefs rank second in the NFL this season by only turning the ball over 15 times (New England, 14).

With the strengths of both of these teams' defenses, one of the keys in the game will be not allowing the other team a short field to put points on the board because of a turnover.

3. Will Alex Smith continue his playoff ways?

In three career playoff games, Smith is averaging 291 yards per game with 9 touchdowns and not a single interception. He's 1-2 in those games, despite his teams averaging more than 32 points per game offensively.

While he doesn't take much individual credit for any of this, which shouldn't surprise anyone who has ever talked with Smith, the season he's put together combined with the success he's had in the playoffs should give everyone plenty of confidence heading into Saturday's game.


"I think one of the things you can attribute it to is preparation," Pederson explained of Smith's playoff successes. "As a coaching staff, we can't be all goofy and creative and reinvent the wheel going into this game. Do what got you into the playoffs.

"We're running the same things, we're just cooking it up—formation, motions, shifts—a little differently, and [Alex Smith] knows exactly where [everybody's] going to be."

Smith's development in his third year in the same system is the reason behind the fact that he had a career best in yards passing and rushing this season.

Before he came to Kansas City, Smith had three head coaches, seven offensive coordinators and six quarterback coaches in his eight years in San Francisco.

Smith has had the same head coach (Andy Reid), offensive coordinator (Doug Pederson) and quarterbacks coach (Matt Nagy) all three of his years in Kansas City.


"His numbers may not be up there with some of the top guys in the league," Pederson said, "but his wins and losses are. He's understanding what we're asking him to do, and we've given him more opportunities in games to get us out of certain things or put us into certain things.

"He's leading this football team like we knew he was capable of doing and given us opportunities to win games. I really think he's having his best year of his career."

In the Week 1 meeting against the Texans, Smith finished 22 of 33 for 243 yards and 3 touchdowns.

4. Can the Chiefs defense contain DeAndre Hopkins?


The Chiefs will once again face one of the best receivers in the NFL on Saturday in Texans third-year star DeAndre Hopkins, who ranks third in the NFL with 1,521 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns this season.

But facing elite receivers isn't new for the Chiefs, as they've played six games against five of the top 10 receivers in the NFL in 2015.

Chiefs vs. Top 10 WRs in 2015


Player (Team)

NFL Rank (Total yds)

Vs. Chiefs





DeAndre Hopkins (Texans)

No. 3 (1,521)





Demaryius Thomas (Broncos)

No. 7 (1,304)





A.J. Green (Bengals)

No. 8 (1,297)





Antonio Brown (Steelers)

No. 2 (1,834)





Calvin Johnson (Lions)

No. 10 (1,214)





Demaryius Thomas (Broncos)

No. 7 (1,304)




Safety Eric Berry understands the challenge the Chiefs face in Hopkins this week.

"He runs great routes, he has great stems," he said. "He's just an elite wide receiver, so you have to be aware of him. So basically we just approach it like we've been doing the whole season."

Hopkins has been targeted 192 times this season, which is the third-most in the NFL. In 13 of his 16 games, he's been targeted at least 11 times.

The Chiefs know where the ball is going. They just have to stop it, which is much easier said than done.

5. Can the Chiefs consistently run the football on the Texans front seven?

During the current 10-game winning streak, the Chiefs have rushed for at least 100 yards in nine of those 10 games, with the lone exception being against the Raiders on the road, when they ran for 89 yards.

With a two-headed monster of West and Ware in the backfield, the Chiefs have a pretty good tandem to throw a couple of different styles at the defense.

"I think we are fortunate," Pederson explained. "One is a between-the-tackles, downhill, tough, keep-the-feet moving, will-take-two-or-three-tacklers-with-him kind of guy in Spencer Ware.


"Then you have [West,] who is more of that left-to-right, jump cut, gives you a little more quickness in and out of the hole, burst-of-speed kind of guy.


"It kind of gives you two different flavors, and it's good to have two types like that in your game plan because you can dial those up at any time and it gives you two different looks to a defense."

Over their past three games, the Texans defense has allowed a total of just 112 yards on the ground on 44 carries, which averages out to 2.5 yards per carry.

In their first meeting, the Chiefs ran the ball 32 times for 97 yards—averaging just 3.03 yards per carry.

Depending upon injuries and whether or not Mitch Morse (concussion) or Jah Reid (knee) are able to play, the Chiefs could have three new starters along the offensive line compared to what they lined up in that first game against the Texans.

Eric Fisher didn't play with an ankle injury and has now solidified the left tackle position, while Jeff Allen, who missed the first six games of the season with a knee, has added a "nastiness" to the group that has led to 10 straight wins since he returned to left guard.

It's not the same offensive line.

"Leaps and bounds," Pederson explained of the group's improvement since Week 1. "We we're putting pieces together (back then). Now that we have all that experience, and have played together, and it will be interesting.

"Really, in these games now that you're getting further into the postseason, the whole thing hinges on the offensive and defensive lines. How well do they play? How well they play as a unit?

"I'm excited to watch our guys against a good defensive front."

The team that is more physical and wins the battle up front—what playoff football is all about—will win this game.


Photos from the Chiefs week one matchup against the Texans

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